3. English Catholic Literature

§ 1. In its relation to Religious Literature
§ 2. In its relation to Science
§ 3. In its relation to Classical Literature
§ 4. In its relation to the Literature of the Day


{295} ONE of the special objects which a Catholic University would promote is that of the formation of a Catholic Literature in the English language. It is an object, however, which must be understood before it can be suitably prosecuted; and which will not be understood without some discussion and investigation. First ideas on the subject must almost necessarily be crude. The real state of the case, what is desirable, what is possible, has to be ascertained; and then what has to be done, and what is to be expected. We have seen in public matters, for half a year past [Note 1], to what mistakes, and to what disappointments, the country has been exposed, from not having been able distinctly to put before it what was to be aimed at by its fleets and armies, what was practicable, what was probable, in operations of war: and so, too, in the field of literature, we are sure of falling into a parallel perplexity and dissatisfaction, if we start with a vague notion of doing something or other important by means of a Catholic University, without having the caution to examine what is feasible, and what is unnecessary or hopeless. Accordingly, it is natural I should wish to direct attention to this subject, even though it be too difficult to handle in any exact or complete way, and though my attempt must be left for others to bring into a more perfect shape, who are more fitted for the task.

Here I shall chiefly employ myself in investigating what the object is not. {296}

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§ 1. In its relation to Religious Literature

WHEN a "Catholic Literature in the English tongue" is spoken of as a desideratum, no reasonable person will mean by "Catholic works" much more than the "works of Catholics." The phrase does not mean a religious literature. "Religious Literature" indeed would mean much more than "the Literature of religious men;" it means over and above this, that the subject-matter of the Literature is religious; but by "Catholic Literature" is not to be understood a literature which treats exclusively or primarily of Catholic matters, of Catholic doctrine, controversy, history, persons, or politics; but it includes all subjects of literature whatever, treated as a Catholic would treat them, and as he only can treat them. Why it is important to have them treated by Catholics hardly need be explained here, though something will be incidentally said on the point as we proceed: meanwhile I am drawing attention to the distinction between the two phrases in order to avoid a serious misapprehension. For it is evident that, if by a Catholic Literature were meant nothing more or less than a religious literature, its writers would be mainly ecclesiastics; just as writers on Law are mainly lawyers, and writers on Medicine are mainly physicians or surgeons. And if this be so, a Catholic Literature is no object special to a University, unless a University is to be considered identical with a Seminary or a Theological School. {297}

I am not denying that a University might prove of the greatest benefit even to our religious literature; doubtless it would, and in various ways; still it is concerned with Theology only as one great subject of thought, as the greatest indeed which can occupy the human mind, yet not as the adequate or direct scope of its institution. Yet I suppose it is not impossible for a literary layman to wince at the idea, and to shrink from the proposal, of taking part in a scheme for the formation of a Catholic Literature, under the apprehension that in some way or another he will be entangling himself in a semi-clerical occupation. It is not uncommon, on expressing an anticipation that the Professors of a Catholic University will promote a Catholic Literature, to have to encounter a vague notion that a lecturer or writer so employed must have something polemical about him, must moralize or preach, must (in Protestant language) improve the occasion, though his subject is not at all a religious one; in short, that he must do something else besides fairly and boldly go right on, and be a Catholic speaking as a Catholic spontaneously will speak, on the Classics, or Fine Arts, or Poetry, or whatever he has taken in hand. Men think that he cannot give a lecture on Comparative Anatomy without being bound to digress into the Argument from Final Causes; that he cannot recount the present geological theories without forcing them into an interpretation seriatim of the first two chapters of Genesis. Many, indeed, seem to go further still, and actually pronounce that, since our own University has been recommended by the Holy See, and is established by the Hierarchy, it cannot but be engaged in teaching religion and nothing else, and must and will have the discipline of a Seminary; which is about as sensible and logical a view of the matter as it would be {298} to maintain that the Prime Minister ipso facto holds an ecclesiastical office, since he is always a Protestant; or that the members of the House of Commons must necessarily have been occupied in clerical duties, as long as they took an oath about Transubstantiation. Catholic Literature is not synonymous with Theology, nor does it supersede or interfere with the work of catechists, divines, preachers, or schoolmen. {299}

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§ 2. In its relation to Science


AND next, it must be borne in mind, that when we aim at providing a Catholic Literature for Catholics, in place of an existing literature which is of a marked Protestant character, we do not, strictly speaking, include the pure sciences in our desideratum. Not that we should not feel pleased and proud to find Catholics distinguish themselves in publications on abstract or experimental philosophy, on account of the honour it does to our religion in the eyes of the world;—not that we are insensible to the congruity and respectability of depending in these matters on ourselves, and not on others, at least as regards our text-books;—not that we do not confidently anticipate that Catholics of these countries will in time to come be able to point to authorities and discoverers in science of their own, equal to those of Protestant England, Germany, or Sweden;—but because, as regards mathematics, chemistry, astronomy, and similar subjects, one man will not, on the score of his religion, treat of them better than another, and because the works of even an unbeliever or idolator, while he kept within the strict range of such studies, might be safely admitted into Catholic lecture-rooms, and put without scruple into the hands of Catholic youths. There is no crying demand, no imperative necessity, for our acquisition of a Catholic Euclid or a Catholic Newton. The object of all science is truth;—the pure {300} sciences proceed to their enunciations from principles which the intellect discerns by a natural light, and by a process recognized by natural reason; and the experimental sciences investigate facts by methods of analysis or by ingenious expedients, ultimately resolvable into instruments of thought equally native to the human mind. If then we may assume that there is an objective truth, and that the constitution of the human mind is in correspondence with it, and acts truly when it acts according to its own laws; if we may assume that God made us, and that what He made is good, and that no action from and according to nature can in itself be evil; it will follow that, so long as it is man who is the geometrician, or natural philosopher, or mechanic, or critic, no matter what man he be, Hindoo, Mahometan, or infidel, his conclusions within his own science, according to the laws of that science, are unquestionable, and not to be suspected by Catholics, unless Catholics may legitimately be jealous of fact and truth, of divine principles and divine creations.

I have been speaking of the scientific treatises or investigations of those who are not Catholics, to which the subject of Literature leads me; but I might even go on to speak of them in their persons as well as in their books. Were it not for the scandal which they would create; were it not for the example they would set; were it not for the certain tendency of the human mind involuntarily to outleap the strict boundaries of an abstract science, and to teach it upon extraneous principles, to embody it in concrete examples, and to carry it on to practical conclusions; above all, were it not for the indirect influence, and living energetic presence, and collateral duties, which accompany a Professor in a great school of learning, I do not see (abstracting from him, I {301} repeat, in hypothesis, what never could possibly be abstracted from him in fact), why the chair of Astronomy in a Catholic University should not be filled by a La Place, or that of Physics by a Humboldt. Whatever they might wish to say, still, while they kept to their own science, they would be unable, like the heathen Prophet in Scripture, to "go beyond the word of the Lord, to utter any thing of their own head."


So far the arguments hold good of certain celebrated writers in a Northern Review, who, in their hostility to the principle of dogmatic teaching, seem obliged to maintain, because subject-matters are distinct, that living opinions are distinct too, and that men are abstractions as well as their respective sciences. "On the morning of the thirteenth of August, in the year 1704," says a justly celebrated author, in illustration and defence of the anti-dogmatic principle in political and social matters, "two great captains, equal in authority, united by close private and public ties, but of different creeds, prepared for battle, on the event of which were staked the liberties of Europe ... Marlborough gave orders for public prayers; the English chaplains read the service at the head of the English regiments; the Calvinistic chaplains of the Dutch army, with heads on which hand of Bishop had never been laid, poured forth their supplications in front of their countrymen. In the meantime the Danes might listen to the Lutheran ministers; and Capuchins might encourage the Austrian squadrons, and pray to the Virgin for a blessing on the arms of the holy Roman Empire. The battle commences; these men of various religions all act like members of one body: the Catholic and the Protestant {302} generals exert themselves to assist and to surpass each other; before sunset the Empire is saved; France has lost in a day the fruits of eight years of intrigue and of victory; and the allies, after conquering together, return thanks to God separately, each after his own form of worship." [Note 2]

The writer of this lively passage would be doubtless unwilling himself to carry out the principle which it insinuates to those extreme conclusions to which it is often pushed by others, in matters of education. Viewed in itself, viewed in the abstract, that principle is simply, undeniably true; and is only sophistical when it is carried out in practical matters at all. A religious opinion, though not formally recognized, cannot fail of influencing in fact the school, or society, or polity in which it is found; though in the abstract that opinion is one thing, and the school, society, or polity, another. Here were Episcopalians, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Catholics found all fighting on one side, it is true, without any prejudice to their respective religious tenets: and, certainly, I never heard that in a battle soldiers did do any thing else but fight. I did not know they had time for going beyond the matter in hand; yet, even as regards this very illustration which he has chosen, if we were bound to decide by it the controversy, it does so happen that that danger of interference and collision between opposite religionists actually does occur upon a campaign, which could not be incurred in a battle: and at this very time some jealousy or disgust has been shown in English popular publications, when they have had to record that our ally, the Emperor of the French, has sent his troops, who are serving with the British against the Russians, to attend High Mass, {303} or has presented his sailors with a picture of the Madonna.

If, then, we could have Professors who were mere abstractions and phantoms, marrowless in their bones, and without speculation in their eyes; or if they could only open their mouths on their own special subject, and in their scientific pedantry were dead to the world; if they resembled the well known character in the Romance, who was so imprisoned or fossilized in his erudition, that, though "he stirred the fire with some address," nevertheless, on attempting to snuff the candles, he "was unsuccessful, and relinquished that ambitious post of courtesy, after having twice reduced the parlour to total darkness," then indeed Voltaire himself might be admitted, not without scandal, but without risk, to lecture on astronomy or galvanism in Catholic, or Protestant, or Presbyterian Colleges, or in all of them at once; and we should have no practical controversy with philosophers who, after the fashion of the author I have been quoting, are so smart in proving that we, who differ from them, must needs be so bigotted and puzzle-headed.

And in strict conformity with these obvious distinctions, it will be found that, so far as we are able to reduce scientific men of anti-Catholic opinions to the type of the imaginary bookworm to whom I have been alluding, we do actually use them in our schools. We allow our Catholic student to use them, so far as he can surprise them (if I may use the expression), in their formal treatises, and can keep them close prisoners there.

Vix defessa senem passus componere membra,
Cum clamore ruit magno, manicisque jacentem

The fisherman, in the Arabian tale, took no harm from {304} the genius, till he let him out from the brass bottle in which he was confined. "He examined the vessel and shook it, to see if what was within made any noise, but he heard nothing." All was safe till he had succeeded in opening it, and "then came out a very thick smoke, which, ascending to the clouds and extending itself along the sea shore in a thick mist, astonished him very much. After a time the smoke collected, and was converted into a genius of enormous height. At the sight of this monster, whose head appeared to reach the clouds, the fisherman trembled with fear." Such is the difference between an unbelieving or heretical philosopher in person, and in the mere disquisitions proper to his science. Porson was no edifying companion for young men of eighteen, nor are his letters on the text of the Three Heavenly Witnesses to be recommended; but that does not hinder his being admitted into Catholic schools, while he is confined within the limits of his Preface to the Hecuba. Franklin certainly would have been intolerable in person, if he began to talk freely, and throw out, as I think he did in private, that each solar system had its own god; but such extravagances of so able a man do not interfere with the honour we justly pay his name in the history of experimental science. Nay, the great Newton himself would have been silenced in a Catholic University, when he got upon the Apocalypse; yet is that any reason why we should not study his Principia, or avail ourselves of the wonderful analysis which he, Protestant as he was, originated, and which French infidels have developed? We are glad, for their own sakes, that anti-Catholic writers should, in their posthumous influence, do as much real service to the human race as ever they can, and we have no wish to interfere with it. {305}


Returning, then, to the point from which we set out, I observe that, this being the state of the case as regards abstract science, viz., that we have no quarrel with its anti-Catholic commentators, till they thrust their persons into our Chairs, or their popular writings into our reading-rooms, it follows that, when we contemplate the formation of a Catholic Literature, we do not consider scientific works as among our most prominent desiderata. They are to be looked for, not so much for their own sake, as because they are indications that we have able scientific men in our communion; for if we have such, they will be certain to write, and in proportion as they increase in number will there be the chance of really profound, original, and standard books issuing from our Lecture-rooms and Libraries. But, after all, there is no reason why these should be better than those which we have already received from Protestants; though it is at once more becoming and more agreeable to our feelings to use books of our own, instead of being indebted to the books of others.

Literature, then, is not synonymous with Science; nor does Catholic education imply the exclusion of works of abstract reasoning, or of physical experiment, or the like, though written by persons of another or of no communion.

There is another consideration in point here, or rather prior to what I have been saying; and that is, that, considering certain scientific works, those on Criticism, for instance, are so often written in a technical phraseology, and since others, as mathematical, deal so largely in signs, symbols, and figures, which belong to all languages, these abstract studies cannot properly be said to {306} fall under English Literature at all;—for by Literature I understand Thought, conveyed under the forms of some particular language. And this brings me to speak of Literature in its highest and most genuine sense, viz., as an historical and national fact; and I fear, in this sense of the word also, it is altogether beside or beyond any object which a Catholic University can reasonably contemplate, at least in any moderate term of years; but so large a subject here opens upon us that I must postpone it to another Section. {307}

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§ 3. In its relation to Classical Literature


I HAVE been directing the reader's attention, first to what we do not, and next to what we need not contemplate, when we turn our thoughts to the formation of an English Catholic Literature. I said that our object was neither a library of theological nor of scientific knowledge, though theology in its literary aspect, and abstract science as an exercise of intellect, have both of course a place in the Catholic encyclopędia. One undertaking, however, there is, which not merely does not, and need not, but unhappily cannot, come into the reasonable contemplation of any set of persons, whether members of a University or not, who are desirous of Catholicizing the English language, as is very evident; and that is simply the creation of an English Classical Literature, for that has been done long ago, and would be a work beyond the powers of any body of men, even if it had still to be done. If I insist on this point here, no one must suppose I do not consider it to be self-evident; for I shall not be aiming at proving it, so much as at bringing it home distinctly to the mind, that we may, one and all, have a clearer perception of the state of things with which we have to deal. There is many an undeniable truth which is not practically felt and appreciated; and, unless we master our position in the matter before us, we may be led off into various wild imaginations or impossible schemes, which will, as a matter of course, end in disappointment. {308}

Were the Catholic Church acknowledged from this moment through the length and breadth of these islands, and the English tongue henceforth baptized into the Catholic faith, and sealed and consecrated to Catholic objects, and were the present intellectual activity of the nation to continue, as of course it would continue, we should at once have an abundance of Catholic works, which would be English, and purely English, literature and high literature; but still all these would not constitute "English Literature," as the words are commonly understood, nor even then could we say that the "English Literature" was Catholic. Much less can we ever aspire to affirm it, while we are but a portion of the vast English-speaking world-wide race, and are but striving to create a current in the direction of Catholic truth, when the waters are rapidly flowing the other way. In no case can we, strictly speaking, form an English Literature; for by the Literature of a Nation is meant its Classics, and its Classics have been given to England, and have been recognized as such, long since.


A Literature, when it is formed, is a national and historical fact; it is a matter of the past and the present, and can be as little ignored as the present, as little undone as the past. We can deny, supersede, or change it, then only, when we can do the same towards the race or language which it represents. Every great people has a character of its own, which it manifests and perpetuates in a variety of ways. It developes into a monarchy or republic;—by means of commerce or in war, in agriculture or in manufactures, or in all of these at once; in its cities, its public edifices and works, bridges, canals, and harbours; in its laws, traditions, customs, and manners; in its songs {309} and its proverbs; in its religion; in its line of policy, its bearing, its action towards foreign nations; in its alliances, fortunes, and the whole course of its history. All these are peculiar, and parts of a whole, and betoken the national character, and savour of each other; and the case is the same with the national language and literature. They are what they are, and cannot be any thing else, whether they be good or bad or of a mixed nature; before they are formed, we cannot prescribe them, and afterwards, we cannot reverse them. We may feel great repugnance to Milton or Gibbon as men; we may most seriously protest against the spirit which ever lives, and the tendency which ever operates, in every page of their writings; but there they are, an integral portion of English Literature; we cannot extinguish them; we cannot deny their power; we cannot write a new Milton or a new Gibbon; we cannot expurgate what needs to be exorcised. They are great English authors, each breathing hatred to the Catholic Church in his own way, each a proud and rebellious creature of God, each gifted with incomparable gifts.

We must take things as they are, if we take them at all. We may refuse to say a word to English literature, if we will; we may have recourse to French or to Italian instead, if we think either of these less exceptionable than our own; we may fall back upon the Classics of Greece and Rome; we may have nothing whatever to do with literature, as such, of any kind, and confine ourselves to purely amorphous or monstrous specimens of language; but if we do once profess in our Universities the English language and literature, if we think it allowable to know the state of things we live in, and that national character which we share, if we think it desirable to have a chance of writing what may be read after our day, and praiseworthy to aim {310} at providing for Catholics who speak English a Catholic Literature then—I do not say that we must at once throw open every sort of book to the young, the weak, or the untrained,—I do not say that we may dispense with our ecclesiastical indexes and emendations, but—we must not fancy ourselves creating what is already created in spite of us, and which never could at a moment be created by means of us, and we must recognize that historical literature, which is in occupation of the language, both as a fact, nay, and as a standard for ourselves.

There is surely nothing either "temerarious" or paradoxical in a statement like this. The growth of a nation is like that of an individual; its tone of voice and subjects for speech vary with its age. Each age has its own propriety and charm; as a boy's beauty is not a man's, and the sweetness of a treble differs from the richness of a bass, so it is with a whole people. The same period does not produce its most popular poet, its most effective orator, and its most philosophic historian. Language changes with the progress of thought and the events of history, and style changes with it; and while in successive generations it passes through a series of separate excellences, the respective deficiencies of all are supplied alternately by each. Thus language and literature may be considered as dependent on a process of nature, and admitting of subjection to her laws. Father Hardouin indeed, who maintained that, with the exception of Pliny, Cicero, Virgil's Georgics, and Horace's Satires and Epistles, Latin literature was the work of the medieval monks, had the conception of a literature neither national nor historical; but the rest of the world will be apt to consider time and place as necessary conditions in its formation, and will be unable to conceive of classical authors, except as either the elaboration of centuries, or the rare and fitful accident of genius. {311}

First-rate excellence in literature, as in other matters, is either an accident or the outcome of a process; and in either case demands a course of years to secure. We cannot reckon on a Plato, we cannot force an Aristotle, any more than we can command a fine harvest, or create a coal field. If a literature be, as I have said, the voice of a particular nation, it requires a territory and a period, as large as that nation's extent and history, to mature in. It is broader and deeper than the capacity of any body of men, however gifted, or any system of teaching, however true. It is the exponent, not of truth, but of nature, which is true only in its elements. It is the result of the mutual action of a hundred simultaneous influences and operations, and the issue of a hundred strange accidents in independent places and times; it is the scanty compensating produce of the wild discipline of the world and of life, so fruitful in failures; and it is the concentration of those rare manifestations of intellectual power, which no one can account for. It is made up, in the particular language here under consideration, of human beings as heterogeneous as Burns and Bunyan, De Foe and Johnson, Goldsmith and Cowper, Law and Fielding, Scott and Byron. The remark has been made that the history of an author is the history of his works; it is far more exact to say that, at least in the case of great writers, the history of their works is the history of their fortunes or their times. Each is, in his turn, the man of his age, the type of a generation, or the interpreter of a crisis. He is made for his day, and his day for him. Hooker would not have been, but for the existence of Catholics and Puritans, the defeat of the former and the rise of the latter; Clarendon would not have been without the Great Rebellion; Hobbes is the prophet of the reaction to scoffing infidelity; and Addison is the child {312} of the Revolution and its attendant changes. If there be any of our classical authors, who might at first sight have been pronounced a University man, with the exception of Johnson, Addison is he; yet even Addison, the son and brother of clergymen, the fellow of an Oxford Society, the resident of a College which still points to the walk which he planted, must be something more, in order to take his place among the Classics of the language, and owed the variety of his matter to his experience of life, and to the call made on his resources by the exigencies of his day. The world he lived in made him and used him. While his writings educated his own generation, they have delineated it for all posterity after him.


I have been speaking of the authors of a literature, in their relation to the people and course of events to which they belong; but a prior consideration, at which I have already glanced, is their connection with the language itself, which has been their organ. If they are in great measure the creatures of their times, they are on the other hand in a far higher sense the creators of their language. It is indeed commonly called their mother tongue, but virtually it did not exist till they gave it life and form. All greater matters are carried on and perfected by a succession of individual minds; what is true in the history of thought and of action is true of language also. Certain masters of composition, as Shakespeare, Milton, and Pope, the writers of the Protestant Bible and Prayer Book, Hooker and Addison, Swift, Hume, and Goldsmith, have been the making of the English language; and as that language is a fact, so is the literature a fact, by which it is formed, and in which it lives. Men of great ability have taken it in {313} hand, each in his own day, and have done for it what the master of a gymnasium does for the bodily frame. They have formed its limbs, and developed its strength; they have endowed it with vigour, exercised it in suppleness and dexterity, and taught it grace. They have made it rich, harmonious, various, and precise. They have furnished it with a variety of styles, which from their individuality may almost be called dialects, and are monuments both of the powers of the language and the genius of its cultivators.

How real a creation, how sui generis, is the style of Shakespeare, or of the Protestant Bible and Prayer Book, or of Swift, or of Pope, or of Gibbon, or of Johnson! Even were the subject-matter without meaning, though in truth the style cannot really be abstracted from the sense, still the style would, on that supposition, remain as perfect and original a work as Euclid's elements or a symphony of Beethoven. And, like music, it has seized upon the public mind; and the literature of England is no longer a mere letter, printed in books, and shut up in libraries, but it is a living voice, which has gone forth in its expressions and its sentiments into the world of men, which daily thrills upon our ears and syllables our thoughts, which speaks to us through our correspondents, and dictates when we put pen to paper. Whether we will or no, the phraseology and diction of Shakespeare, of the Protestant formularies, of Milton, of Pope, of Johnson's Tabletalk, and of Walter Scott, have become a portion of the vernacular tongue, the household words, of which perhaps we little guess the origin, and the very idioms of our familiar conversation. The man in the comedy spoke prose without knowing it; and we Catholics, without consciousness and without offence, are ever repeating the half sentences of dissolute {314} playwrights and heretical partizans and preachers. So tyrannous is the literature of a nation; it is too much for us. We cannot destroy or reverse it; we may confront and encounter it, but we cannot make it over again. It is a great work of man, when it is no work of God's.

I repeat, then, whatever we be able or unable to effect in the great problem which lies before us, any how we cannot undo the past. English Literature will ever have been Protestant. Swift and Addison, the most native and natural of our writers, Hooker and Milton, the most elaborate, never can become our co-religionists; and, though this is but the enunciation of a truism, it is not on that account an unprofitable enunciation.


I trust we are not the men to give up an undertaking because it is perplexed or arduous; and to do nothing because we cannot do everything. Much may be attempted, much attained, even granting English Literature is not Catholic. Something indeed may be said even in alleviation of the misfortune itself, on which I have been insisting; and with two remarks bearing upon this latter point I will bring this Section to an end.

1. First, then, it is to be considered that, whether we look to countries Christian or heathen, we find the state of literature there as little satisfactory as it is in these islands; so that, whatever are our difficulties here, they are not worse than those of Catholics all over the world. I would not indeed say a word to extenuate the calamity, under which we lie, of having a literature formed in Protestantism; still, other literatures have disadvantages of their own; and, though in such matters comparisons are impossible, I doubt whether we should be better pleased if {315} our English Classics were tainted with licentiousness, or defaced by infidelity or scepticism. I conceive we should not much mend matters if we were to exchange literatures with the French, Italians, or Germans. About Germany, however, I will not speak; as to France, it has great and religious authors; its classical drama, even in comedy, compared with that of other literatures, is singularly unexceptionable; but who is there that holds a place among its writers so historical and important, who is so copious, so versatile, so brilliant, as that Voltaire who is an open scoffer at every thing sacred, venerable, or high-minded? Nor can Rousseau, though he has not the pretensions of Voltaire, be excluded from the classical writers of France. Again, the gifted Pascal, in the work on which his literary fame is mainly founded, does not approve himself to a Catholic judgment; and Descartes, the first of French philosophers, was too independent in his inquiries to be always correct in his conclusions. The witty Rabelais is said, by a recent critic [Note 3], to show covertly in his former publications, and openly in his latter, his "dislike to the Church of Rome." La Fontaine was with difficulty brought, on his death-bed, to make public satisfaction for the scandal which he had done to religion by his immoral Contes, though at length he threw into the fire a piece which he had just finished for the stage. Montaigne, whose Essays "make an epoch in literature," by "their influence upon the tastes and opinions of Europe;" whose "school embraces a large proportion of French and English literature;" and of whose "brightness and felicity of genius there can be but one opinion," is disgraced, as the same writer tells us, by "a sceptical bias and great indifference of temperament;" and "has led the way" as an {316} habitual offender, "to the indecency too characteristic of French literature."

Nor does Italy present a more encouraging picture. Ariosto, one of the few names, ancient or modern, who is allowed on all hands to occupy the first rank of Literature, is, I suppose, rightly arraigned by the author I have above quoted, of "coarse sensuality." Pulci, "by his sceptical insinuations, seems clearly to display an intention of exposing religion to contempt." Boccaccio, the first of Italian prose-writers, had in his old age touchingly to lament the corrupting tendency of his popular compositions; and Bellarmine has to vindicate him, Dante, and Petrarch, from the charge of virulent abuse of the Holy See. Dante certainly does not scruple to place in his Inferno a Pope, whom the Church has since canonized, and his work on Monarchia is on the Index. Another great Florentine, Macchiavel, is on the Index also; and Giannone, as great in political history at Naples as Macchiavel at Florence, is notorious for his disaffection to the interests of the Roman Pontiff.

These are but specimens of the general character of secular literature, whatever be the people to whom it belongs. One literature may be better than another, but bad will be the best, when weighed in the balance of truth and morality. It cannot be otherwise; human nature is in all ages and all countries the same; and its literature, therefore, will ever and everywhere be one and the same also. Man's work will savour of man; in his elements and powers excellent and admirable, but prone to disorder and excess, to error and to sin. Such too will be his literature; it will have the beauty and the fierceness, the sweetness and the rankness, of the natural man, and, with all its richness and greatness, will necessarily offend the senses of those who, in the Apostle's {317} words, are really "exercised to discern between good and evil." "It is said of the holy Sturme," says an Oxford writer, "that, in passing a horde of unconverted Germans, as they were bathing and gambolling in the stream, he was so overpowered by the intolerable scent which arose from them that he nearly fainted away." National Literature is, in a parallel way, the untutored movements of the reason, imagination, passions, and affections of the natural man, the leapings and the friskings, the plungings and the snortings, the sportings and the buffoonings, the clumsy play and the aimless toil, of the noble, lawless savage of God's intellectual creation.

It is well that we should clearly apprehend a truth so simple and elementary as this, and not expect from the nature of man, or the literature of the world, what they never held out to us. Certainly, I did not know that the world was to be regarded as favourable to Christian faith or practice, or that it would be breaking any engagement with us, if it took a line divergent from our own. I have never fancied that we should have reasonable ground for surprise or complaint, though man's intellect puris naturalibus did prefer, of the two, liberty to truth, or though his heart cherished a leaning towards licence of thought and speech in comparison with restraint.


2. If we do but resign ourselves to facts, we shall soon be led on to the second reflection which I have promised—viz., that, not only are things not better abroad, but they might be worse at home. We have, it is true, a Protestant literature; but then it is neither atheistical nor immoral; and, in the case of at least half a dozen of its highest and most influential departments, and of {318} the most popular of its authors, it comes to us with very considerable alleviations. For instance, there surely is a call on us for thankfulness that the most illustrious amongst English writers has so little of a Protestant about him that Catholics have been able, without extravagance, to claim him as their own, and that enemies to our creed have allowed that he is only not a Catholic, because, and as far as, his times forbade it. It is an additional satisfaction to be able to boast that he offends in neither of those two respects, which reflect so seriously upon the reputation of great authors abroad. Whatever passages may be gleaned from his dramas disrespectful to ecclesiastical authority, still these are but passages; on the other hand, there is in Shakespeare neither contempt of religion nor scepticism, and he upholds the broad laws of moral and divine truth with the consistency and severity of an Ęschylus, Sophocles, or Pindar. There is no mistaking in his works on which side lies the right; Satan is not made a hero, nor Cain a victim, but pride is pride, and vice is vice, and, whatever indulgence he may allow himself in light thoughts or unseemly words, yet his admiration is reserved for sanctity and truth. From the second chief fault of Literature, as indeed my last words imply, he is not so free; but, often as he may offend against modesty, he is clear of a worse charge, sensuality, and hardly a passage can be instanced in all that he has written to seduce the imagination or to excite the passions.

A rival to Shakespeare, if not in genius, at least in copiousness and variety, is found in Pope; and he was actually a Catholic, though personally an unsatisfactory one. His freedom indeed from Protestantism is but a poor compensation for a false theory of religion in one of his poems; but taking his works as a whole, we may surely {319} acquit them of being dangerous to the reader, whether on the score of morals or of faith.

Again, the special title of moralist in English Literature is accorded by the public voice to Johnson, whose bias towards Catholicity is well known.

If we were to ask for a report of our philosophers, the investigation would not be so agreeable; for we have three of evil, and one of unsatisfactory repute. Locke is scarcely an honour to us in the standard of truth, grave and manly as he is; and Hobbes, Hume, and Bentham, in spite of their abilities, are simply a disgrace. Yet, even in this department, we find some compensation in the names of Clarke, Berkeley, Butler, and Reid, and in a name more famous than them all. Bacon was too intellectually great to hate or to contemn the Catholic faith; and he deserves by his writings to be called the most orthodox of Protestant philosophers. {320}

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§ 4. In its relation to the Literature of the Day


THE past cannot be undone. That our English Classical Literature is not Catholic is a plain fact, which we cannot deny, to which we must reconcile ourselves, as best we may, and which, as I have shown above, has after all its compensations. When, then, I speak of the desirableness of forming a Catholic Literature, I am contemplating no such vain enterprise as that of reversing history; no, nor of redeeming the past by the future. I have no dream of Catholic Classics as still reserved for the English language. In truth, classical authors not only are national, but belong to a particular age of a nation's life; and I should not wonder if, as regards ourselves, that age is passing away. Moreover, they perform a particular office towards its language, which is not likely to be called for beyond a definite time. And further, though analogies or parallels cannot be taken to decide a question of this nature, such is the fact, that the series of our classical writers has already extended through a longer period than was granted to the Classical Literature either of Greece or of Rome; and thus the English language also may have a long course of literature still to come through many centuries, without that Literature being classical.

Latin, for instance, was a living language for many hundred years after the date of the writers who brought it to its perfection; and then it continued for a second {321} long period to be the medium of European correspondence. Greek was a living language to a date not very far short of that of the taking of Constantinople, ten centuries after the date of St. Basil, and seventeen hundred years after the period commonly called classical. And thus, as the year has its spring and summer, so even for those celebrated languages there was but a season of splendour, and, compared with the whole course of their duration, but a brief season. Since, then, English has had its great writers for a term of about three hundred years,—as long, that is, as the period from Sappho to Demosthenes, or from Pisistratus to Arcesilas, or from Ęschylus and Pindar to Carneades, or from Ennius to Pliny,—we should have no right to be disappointed if the classical period be close upon its termination.

By the Classics of a national Literature I mean those authors who have the foremost place in exemplifying the powers and conducting the development of its language. The language of a nation is at first rude and clumsy; and it demands a succession of skilful artists to make it malleable and ductile, and to work it up to its proper perfection. It improves by use, but it is not every one who can use it while as yet it is unformed. To do this is an effort of genius; and so men of a peculiar talent arise, one after another, according to the circumstances of the times, and accomplish it. One gives it flexibility, that is, shows how it can be used without difficulty to express adequately a variety of thoughts and feelings in their nicety or intricacy; another makes it perspicuous or forcible; a third adds to its vocabulary; and a fourth gives it grace and harmony. The style of each of such eminent masters becomes henceforth in some sort a property of the language itself; words, phrases, collocations, and structure, which hitherto did {322} not exist, gradually passing into the conversation and the composition of the educated classes.


Now I will attempt to show how this process of improvement is effected, and what is its limit. I conceive then that these gifted writers act upon the spoken and written language by means of the particular schools which form about them respectively. Their style, using the word in a large sense, forcibly arrests the reader, and draws him on to imitate it, by virtue of what is excellent in it, in spite of such defects as, in common with all human works, it may contain. I suppose all of us will recognize this fascination. For myself when I was fourteen or fifteen, I imitated Addison; when I was seventeen, I wrote in the style of Johnson; about the same time I fell in with the twelfth volume of Gibbon, and my ears rang with the cadence of his sentences, and I dreamed of it for a night or two. Then I began to make an analysis of Thucydides in Gibbon's style. In like manner, most Oxford undergraduates, forty years ago, when they would write poetry, adopted the versification of Pope Darwin, and the Pleasures of Hope, which had been made popular by Heber and Milman. The literary schools, indeed, which I am speaking of, as resulting from the attractions of some original, or at least novel artist, consist for the most part of mannerists, none of whom rise much above mediocrity; but they are not the less serviceable as channels, by means of which the achievements of genius may be incorporated into the language itself, or become the common property of the nation. Henceforth, the most ordinary composer, the very student in the lecture-room, is able to write with a precision, a grace, or a copiousness, as the case may be, unknown before the date {323} of the authors whom he imitates, and he wonders at, if he does not rather pride himself on, his

novas frondes, et non sua poma.

If there is any one who illustrates this remark, it is Gibbon; I seem to trace his vigorous condensation and peculiar rhythm at every turn in the literature of the present day. Pope, again, is said to have tuned our versification. Since his time, any one, who has an ear and turn for poetry, can with little pains throw off a copy of verses equal or superior to the poet's own, and with far less of study and patient correction than would have been demanded of the poet himself for their production. Compare the choruses of the Samson Agonistes with any stanza taken at random in Thalaba: how much had the language gained in the interval between them! Without denying the high merits of Southey's beautiful romance, we surely shall not be wrong in saying, that in its unembarrassed eloquent flow, it is the language of the nineteenth century that speaks, as much as the author himself.

I will give an instance of what I mean: let us take the beginning of the first chorus in the Samson:—

Just are the ways of God,
And justifiable to men;
Unless there be who think not God at all;
If any be, they walk obscure,
For of such doctrine never was there school,
But the heart of the fool,
And no man therein doctor but himself.
But men there be, who doubt His ways not just,
As to His own edicts found contradicting,
Then give the reins to wandering thought,
Regardless of His glory's diminution;
Till, by their own perplexities involved,
They ravel more, still less resolved,
But never find self-satisfying solution.

And now take the opening stanza of Thalaba:—

How beautiful is night!
A dewy freshness fills the silent air;
No mist obscures, nor cloud, nor speck, nor stain,
Breaks the serene of heaven.
In full-orb'd glory yonder Moon divine
Rolls through the dark blue depths.
Beneath her steady ray
The desert circle spreads,
Like the round ocean girdled with the sky.
How beautiful is night!

Does not Southey show to advantage here? yet the voice of the world proclaims Milton pre-eminently a poet; and no one can affect a doubt of the delicacy and exactness of his ear. Yet, much as he did for the language in verse and in prose, he left much for other artists to do after him, which they have successfully accomplished. We see the fruit of the literary labours of Pope, Thomson, Gray, Goldsmith, and other poets of the eighteenth century, in the musical eloquence of Southey.


So much for the process; now for its termination. I think it is brought about in some such way as the following:—

The influence of a great classic upon the nation which he represents is twofold; on the one hand he advances his native language towards its perfection; but on the other hand he discourages in some measure any advance beyond his own. Thus, in the parallel case of science, it is commonly said on the continent, that the very marvellousness of Newton's powers was the bane of English mathematics: inasmuch as those who succeeded {325} him were content with his discoveries, bigoted to his methods of investigation, and averse to those new instruments which have carried on the French to such brilliant and successful results. In Literature, also, there is something oppressive in the authority of a great writer, and something of tyranny in the use to which his admirers put his name. The school which he forms would fain monopolize the language, draws up canons of criticism from his writings, and is intolerant of innovation. Those who come under its influence are dissuaded or deterred from striking out a path of their own. Thus Virgil's transcendent excellence fixed the character of the hexameter in subsequent poetry, and took away the chances, if not of improvement, at least of variety. Even Juvenal has much of Virgil in the structure of his verse. I have known those who prefer the rhythm of Catullus.

However, so summary a result is not of necessary occurrence. The splendour of an author may excite a generous emulation, or the tyrannous formalism of his followers a re-action; and thus other authors and other schools arise. We read of Thucydides, on hearing Herodotus read his history at Olympia, being incited to attempt a similar work, though of an entirely different and of an original structure. Gibbon, in like manner, writing of Hume and Robertson, says: "The perfect composition, the nervous language, the well-turned periods of Dr. Robertson, inflamed me to the ambitious hope that I might one day tread in his footsteps; the calm philosophy, the careless inimitable beauties of his friend and rival, often forced me to close the volume with a mixed sensation of delight and despair." [Note 4]

As to re-actions, I suppose there has been something of the kind against the supremacy of Pope, since the time {326} that his successors, Campbell especially, have developed his peculiarities and even defects into extravagance. Crabbe, for instance, turned back to a versification having much more of Dryden in it; and Byron, in spite of his high opinion of Pope, threw into his lines the rhythm of blank verse. Still, on the whole, the influence of a Classic acts in the way of discouraging any thing new, rather than in that of exciting rivalry or provoking reaction.

And another consideration is to be taken into account. When a language has been cultivated in any particular department of thought, and so far as it has been generally perfected, an existing want has been supplied, and there is no need for further workmen. In its earlier times, while it is yet unformed, to write in it at all is almost a work of genius. It is like crossing a country before roads are made communicating between place and place. The authors of that age deserve to be Classics, both because of what they do and because they can do it. It requires the courage or the force of great talent to compose in the language at all; and the composition, when effected, makes a permanent impression on it. In those early times, too, the licence of speech unfettered by precedents, the novelty of the work, the state of society, and the absence of criticism, enable an author to write with spirit and freshness. But, as centuries pass on, this stimulus is taken away; the language by this time has become manageable for its various purposes, and is ready at command. Ideas have found their corresponding expressions; and one word will often convey what once required half a dozen. Roots have been expanded, derivations multiplied, terms invented or adopted. A variety of phrases has been provided, which form a sort of compound words. Separate professions, pursuits, and provinces of literature have gained their conventional {327} terminology. There is an historical, political, social, commercial style. The ear of the nation has become accustomed to useful expressions or combinations of words, which otherwise would sound harsh. Strange metaphors have been naturalized in the ordinary prose, yet cannot be taken as precedents for a similar liberty. Criticism has become an art, and exercises a continual and jealous watch over the free genius of new writers. It is difficult for them to be original in the use of their mother tongue without being singular.

Thus the language has become in a great measure stereotype; as in the case of the human frame, it has expanded to the loss of its elasticity, and can expand no more. Then the general style of educated men, formed by the accumulated improvements of centuries, is far superior perhaps in perfectness to that of any one of those national Classics, who have taught their countrymen to write more clearly, or more elegantly, or more forcibly than themselves. And literary men submit themselves to what they find so well provided for them; or, if impatient of conventionalities, and resolved to shake off a yoke which tames them down to the loss of individuality, they adopt no half measures, but indulge in novelties which offend against the genius of the language, and the true canons of taste. Political causes may co-operate in a revolt of this kind; and, as a nation declines in patriotism, so does its language in purity. It seems to me as if the sententious, epigrammatic style of writing, which set in with Seneca, and is seen at least as late as in the writings of St. Ambrose, is an attempt to escape from the simplicity of Cęsar and the majestic elocution of Cicero; while Tertullian, with more of genius than good sense, relieves himself in the harsh originality of his provincial Latin. {328}

There is another impediment, as time goes on, to the rise of fresh classics in any nation; and that is the effect which foreigners, or foreign literature, will exert upon it. It may happen that a certain language, like Greek, is adopted and used familiarly by educated men in other countries; or again, that educated men, to whom it is native, may abandon it for some other language, as the Romans of the second and third centuries wrote in Greek instead of Latin. The consequence will be, that the language in question will tend to lose its nationality—that is, its distinctive character; it will cease to be idiomatic in the sense in which it once was so; and whatever grace or propriety it may retain, it will be comparatively tame and spiritless; or, on the other hand, it will be corrupted by the admixture of foreign elements.


Such, as I consider, being the fortunes of Classical Literature, viewed generally, I should never be surprised to find that, as regards this hemisphere, for I can prophesy nothing of America, we have well nigh seen the end of English Classics. Certainly, it is in no expectation of Catholics continuing the series here that I speak of the duty and necessity of their cultivating English literature. When I speak of the formation of a Catholic school of writers, I have respect principally to the matter of what is written, and to composition only so far forth as style is necessary to convey and to recommend the matter. I mean a literature which resembles the literature of the day. This is not a day for great writers, but for good writing, and a great deal of it. There never was a time when men wrote so much and so well, and that, without being of any great account themselves. {329} While our literature in this day, especially the periodical, is rich and various, its language is elaborated to a perfection far beyond that of our Classics, by the jealous rivalry, the incessant practice, the mutual influence, of its many writers. In point of mere style, I suppose, many an article in the Times newspaper, or Edinburgh Review, is superior to a preface of Dryden's, or a Spectator, or a pamphlet of Swift's, or one of South's sermons.

Our writers write so well that there is little to choose between them. What they lack is that individuality, that earnestness, most personal yet most unconscious of self, which is the greatest charm of an author. The very form of the compositions of the day suggests to us their main deficiency. They are anonymous. So was it not in the literature of those nations which we consider the special standard of classical writing; so is it not with our own Classics. The Epic was sung by the voice of the living, present poet. The drama, in its very idea, is poetry in persons. Historians begin, "Herodotus, of Halicarnassus, publishes his researches;" or, "Thucydides, the Athenian, has composed an account of the war." Pindar is all through his odes a speaker. Plato, Xenophon, and Cicero, throw their philosophical dissertations into the form of a dialogue. Orators and preachers are by their very profession known persons, and the personal is laid down by the Philosopher of antiquity as the source of their greatest persuasiveness. Virgil and Horace are ever bringing into their poetry their own characters and tastes. Dante's poems furnish a series of events for the chronology of his times. Milton is frequent in allusions to his own history and circumstances. Even when Addison writes anonymously, he writes under a professed character, and that in a great measure his own; {330} he writes in the first person. The "I", of the Spectator, and the "we" of the modern Review or Newspaper, are the respective symbols of the two ages in our literature. Catholics must do as their neighbours; they must be content to serve their generation, to promote the interests of religion, to recommend truth, and to edify their brethren today, though their names are to have little weight, and their works are not to last much beyond themselves.


And now having shown what it is that a Catholic University does not think of doing, what it need not do, and what it cannot do, I might go on to trace out in detail what it is that it really might and will encourage and create. But, as such an investigation would neither be difficult to pursue, nor easy to terminate, I prefer to leave the subject at the preliminary point to which I have brought it.

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1. August, 1854.
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2. Macaulay's Essays.
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3. Hallam.
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4. Misc. Works, p. 55.
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